My teaching gig ended in May, and in June, I packed up and moved several hundred miles up the East Coast. More dramatically, I moved from bustling suburban sprawl (and a townhouse whose tiny yard was little bigger than the back deck) to five beautiful acres on the outskirts of a small New England town.
Nothing like a wholesale lifestyle change to knock you out of your routine.
My life now involves less time stuck in traffic (I still have my day job, but I do it all remotely) and more time to enjoy nature and simply slow down. Will the change be good for my writing life? There are two schools of thought on that.
In “How Not to Write Your First Novel,” novelist, book critic and technology writer Lev Grossman describes how he headed west after college in the fall of 1991 to write — because “the West seemed like a place where you could lose yourself and hunker down and get some real work done.” He goes in search of what he calls contemplative isolation.
I was an artist. I was super special. I was sparkly. I would walk another path. And I would walk it alone. That was another thing I knew about being an artist: You didn’t need other people. Other people were a distraction. My little chrysalis of genius was going to seat one and one only.
But he doesn’t make it across Pennsylvania and instead winds up in Maine for what turns out to be a miserable six months. In those days before cell phones, email and Facebook, he was consumed by loneliness and a feeling of being disconnected from other people. It did not help his writing.
In the end, he learned that the creative life:
doesn’t make you special and sparkly. You don’t have to walk alone. You can work in an office — I’ve worked in offices for the past 15 years and written five novels while doing it. The creative life is forgiving: You can betray it all you want, again and again, and no matter how many times you do, it will always take you back.
Now contrast that with Chris Guillebeau’s response to a friend who announces that she is going to Bali for a month to write — titled “If You Want to Write a Book, Go to a Boring Place.” Bali is a bad idea, he says. Instead:
Go somewhere where you can withdraw from the world, fully free of engagement. Go somewhere where there’s nothing to do. Then, once you’ve found your quiet place, don’t do anything fun there. Don’t go out. Don’t make other plans. Just write!
I suppose that works if you are writing a first draft and want to get it all down at once (and you have the means and opportunity to even think of going someplace like Bali for a month). I have tried that for stretches of time, where all I did was write and go to my job and fall exhausted into bed at night. It was deeply unsatisfying.
I prefer to find a balance between having enough solitude to write and ample opportunity to dip in and out of the “real” world. Other experiences, activities and relationships fuel my creativity in ways that extreme isolation cannot. I’ll take the ongoing time-management challenge in exchange for living someplace that — for me, at least — is far from boring.